How MMA fight promotion is like MMO game production: a former fight promoter creates his dream game
Jason Appleton used to promote mixed martial arts fights. Today and on Kickstarter, he’s promoting Greed Monger, a fantasy MMORPG built on the concept of communities, with a strong focus on non-instanced housing and a player-run economy. Don’t worry, he says the two fields aren’t that different.
“What I did at MMA was surround myself with people who really knew their side of the game, whether it be production, or fight coordination, or matchmaking, or what-have-you,” Appleton told the Penny Arcade Report. “In game development, I’m not a developer, but I’m good at managing people, I’m good at marketing, I’m good at business development, and all the different elements I need to be good at to put together a team capable of bringing all these different pieces together to form a complete project.”
It’s a good thing, too. This isn’t a side project or hobby-of-the-week distraction for Appleton; Greed Monger is the creation he’s dreamed of since the days of Ultima Online, and it’s an ambitious project.
The 7-foot tall nerd
Appleton made it clear several times in talking to the Report that he is not a programmer. The game uses the garage development-friendly Unity engine, and although Appleton has walked through several tutorials and experimented within the engine himself, he doesn’t possess a comprehensive understanding of the software. In fact, that was never his goal.
Appleton said he knew he couldn’t develop an understanding of programming in time to build Greed Monger himself within a reasonable timeframe, and the game’s scope meant it was something far beyond what one person could do anyway. He needed a team. His experiments in Unity were, as he put it, “Just learning enough to be able to communicate my goals and what I need with somebody more fluent in the engine than I am. I need to know how to communicate with my developers properly.”
Appleton scoured the Unity Assets Store, and reached out whenever he saw something particularly skillful. He built a team of eight artists, programmers and designers in this way.
In some respects, this mirrors Appleton’s rise through MMA fight promotion. “It wasn’t my original intention to get into the fight promotion game, I just wanted to do something fun, I wanted to do something different,” he explained. “When I first got into MMA, I was 310 pounds, borderline diabetic, and I joined a mixed martial arts team really just to try and lose weight.”
“A year later I was running one of the biggest promotions.” Whatever the motivation, Appleton’s business sense and modus operandi is consistent: “I surround myself with people who do know what they’re doing, and we all work together to achieve the same goal.”
A digital frontier
In Greed Monger, Appleton says players won’t have an identity until they make one. “There’s going to be no hand-holding in this game. You’re gonna log in for the first time with a loin cloth and get to work,” he said. Although the game is a medieval fantasy MMORPG, one of the central themes is realism, and that means no quest givers asking you to kill ten rats, no magical sword drops from slain animals.
“It’s gonna be very realistic,” Appleton says in the game’s Kickstarter video. “So if I were to go over there and kill that deer, then I might be able to harvest his antlers and use those for some kind of primitive tool or he might drop things for a stew or food, you never know. You’re never gonna find anything on an animal or a monster that’s a finished item. You’re only gonna find materials to build what you’re looking at.”
Even the game’s story will start bare-bones. Players will have to uncover it themselves by working together and building up their communities. “As you’re walking through the world, you might get a little chat pop-up that says such and such building might fit here,” Appleton said.
“Let’s say, maybe it’s a great place for a tavern. Once you build that tavern, other people in the community will be able to help you. Nobody owns it, but everyone can contribute resources. Once it’s built, you’re gonna start seeing NPCs spawn around the property that are going to serve different purposes, some of those being related to the story of the game: why you’re there, why you’re dropped off on this planet with nothing, that sort of thing.”
“The community as a whole will need to advance to a certain level to achieve the things they need to… to reach the awakening, I guess you could call it,” he said. “We know where we want the story to go, but we’re kind of relying on the community to take us there.”
During his time as a promoter, Appleton also opened his own 19,000 square foot fitness center in Ohio, where he marketed and promoted local fights. Unfortunately, that business venture didn’t turn out so well. Appleton told the Report there simply wasn’t a market for that sort of business in the area. “I think some of the people who wanted to fight had drug problems,” he said. “It wasn’t good.”
“I thought, ‘I need to take a break from MMA altogether.’ I was burnt out. My wife, she was burnt out. We were just kind of done,” Appleton said.
I asked Appleton if he was afraid of history repeating itself. What if, like the fitness center, the game turned out to be a flop of an investment? After all, the Kickstarter, as of this writing, has just over 460 backers, and Appleton has no experience in game development, from either a business or programming perspective. Appleton is also asking a remarkably low amount of money from backers; with a goal of $30,000, Greed Monger is dwarfed by many video game projects. That doesn’t faze him, though.
“I’m sure we’ll probably hit over 500 backers when all is said and done, which tells me if there are 500 people willing to pay for a game that hasn’t even launched yet, that’s early in development, it’s easy to assume there are 3,000 to 10,000 people who are actually going to play it at launch,” Appleton said. There’s no final launch date planned, though Appleton is confident the game will move to alpha testing in April 2013.
As for the lowball Kickstarter goal, Appleton explained that most of it is going to pay for the team’s work. Most of the game’s other costs have already been handled, and the Appleton claims the game’s design doesn’t require a high level of funding. Greed Monger‘s sandbox structure was a major cost-saver. “We don’t have to spend $600,000 on world builders and such to create a pre-built world, we just need to provide the tools to enable to players to build their own world,” he said. The game’s engine license and servers are also being funded out of Appleton’s pocket, which means the biggest bills to pay are for the team’s labor and a few pieces of additional hardware. “Initially I figured, if I got $30,000 I could make up whatever else was needed out of my pocket. I just wanted to get an idea as to how much interest there would be for what we are building. Now, I think the vast majority of our development costs will be covered by Kickstarter.”
It’s clear that making Greed Monger is important to Appleton. He owns $50,000 in servers, bought with his own money. That’s not loose change, and since Greed Monger is free to play, he risks not making a return on his investment. “This game isn’t about making a windfall of money. This game is about putting together the game I’ve wanted to play since Ultima. That’s really what it boils down to: I just want to create something.”
“I’ve been telling my wife for years now, one of the things on my bucket list is I want to make a popular and fun game. Hell, when I was 10 or 11 I’d run around with graph paper, creating pixel art and writing backstory for characters. I didn’t wake up one day and say, ‘I think I’ll start a game today,’ this is something I’ve been wanting to do since I was playing Maniac Mansion at 11 years old. It’s always been a part of me. Now is my opportunity.”
The game is Harvest Moon by way of Skyrim; a medieval fantasy RPG that hands you almost nothing and challenges you to make your own fortune. In some ways, it’s a story not so different from Appleton’s own life.